Olson Memorial Highway, or Highway 55, is an urban highway running through North Minneapolis. It is one of many urban freeways that divides communities, pollutes the environment, and creates a hazardous environment for pedestrians. Olson Memorial Highway has a uniquely devastating history, as the the construction of the highway was at the expense of a thriving Black cultural corridor that was home to local grocery stores, shops, and entertainment.
Some of these concerns were to be addressed with the construction of the Blue Line Light Rail Extension on Olson Highway. The light rail project was set to bring modest but much needed traffic safety improvements as well as robust public transit service. However, after years of planning and development, the Metropolitan Council suddenly rerouted the Blue Line Extension. Harrison and other Near North neighborhoods are left to deal with the negative impacts of this broken promise.
Our Streets Minneapolis and the Harrison Neighborhood Association are leading a campaign to address the harms of the highway and move forward towards restoring the community along Olson. We will continue organizing until the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, the Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County and relevant elected officials and partners give a public commitment to:
-Improving and ultimately transforming the highway corridor in 2 phases (outlined below)
- Public Forum hosted by Harrison Neighborhood Association and Our Streets Minneapolis
Public Accountability Forum
Tuesday January 25, 2022 | 6PM | online via zoom
A public forum on accountability and action hosted by Harrison Neighborhood Association and Our Streets. Community members will have the opportunity to talk to leaders about next steps for pedestrian safety on Olson Memorial Highway and the larger vision of a vibrant corridor that meets the needs of our community.
A Vision for the Future
Today, Olson Memorial Highway is a 6-lane wide highway that divides Near North Minneapolis. The speed limit on the corridor is 40 MPH, though vehicle traffic often moves much faster. The highway includes few locations for people walking, rolling or biking to cross. Olson Memorial Highway does not serve Near North communities. We’re leading this campaign to bring a future beyond the highway. Our team compiled research and community feedback to develop a set of recommendations for the corridor:
Phase 1: Immediate improvements to the Olson Memorial Highway corridor
Every year, people are killed and seriously injured in crashes on Olson Memorial Highway. The wide crossing distances and high traffic speeds make crossing the highway unpleasant and unsafe. The current infrastructure presents urgent concerns that need to be addressed immediately. We are recommending following quick-build safety improvements to Olson Memorial Highway between Lyndale Ave and Upton Ave:
- Restripe the roadway to the following configuration in each direction: 6' bike lane, 11' dedicated bus lane, 11' general purpose lane, 11' general purpose lane with dedicated left turn lanes where adequate right-of-way exists.
- Lower the posted speed limit to 25 mph
- Improve lighting for pedestrians
- Mark crosswalks at all intersections and mid-block crossings
- Add leading pedestrian intervals and adjust walk signal timing to everyone, including people who are mobility impaired and parents with small children, have adequate time to cross the street.
- Use visual indicators, including artist designed crosswalks, to mark pedestrian crossings
- Use paint and bollards to add pedestrian bump outs on cross streets
Phase 2: Replace the highway with a reconstructed 6th Avenue North boulevard and commercial corridor
This phase focuses on a long-term vision to remove the highway as it is now. Any and all of the adjoining parcels of publicly owned land that are included in the highway removal process should remain publicly owned and be placed in a publicly held land trust to ensure development benefits accrue to the community.
This phase focuses on a long-term vision to remove the highway as it is now and restore a vibrant, walkable main street for Near North communities.
Reconstruction of Olson Memorial Highway into a restored 6th Avenue N boulevard and commercial corridor. The reconstructed street should feature the following elements:
- One general traffic lane in each direction with dedicated left turn lanes where appropriate
- A transitway featuring full-time dedicated bus lanes
- Protected bikeways
- Wide sidewalks to accommodate street facing retail
- Put the remaining right-of-way in the publicly held land trust. This land will be used to rebuild a walkable 6th Avenue North commercial corridor.
- The creation of training programs for community members to be hired during the transformation, reconstruction and development phases of the highway
- The creation of an incubator program for local neighborhood talent to develop independently owned businesses along the corridor
- Affordable housing units that reflect and meet the needs of the community. This includes the construction of new public housing units to accommodate our residents’ growing need for truly affordable housing, with priority and preference given to current Harrison and Near North residents, residents who were displaced due to the initial Blue Line route announcement, and former residents of the Sumner-Field, Glenwood, Lyndale, and Olson public housing communities.
- Reconstruction of Olson Memorial Highway into a restored 6th Avenue N boulevard and commercial corridor. The reconstructed street should feature the following elements:
Frequently Asked Questions Around Driving and Impact
(to be updated)
Restorative Justice for North Minneapolis
Government agencies have created planning processes that overlook the voices of our immigrant, refugee, low-wealth and BIPOC communities and cater to the economic interests of outside developers and affluent residents. These intentional choices, around road and transit projects have brought destruction and displacement to our communities — over and over again.
As we begin to engage in conversations around removing Olson Memorial Highway, we see the same entrenched processes and political interests once again threatening the families and small business owners who are the fabric of our beloved neighborhoods.
We demand that changes on Olson Memorial Highway intentionally seek to repair historic harms and restore the sustainability of our neighborhoods. Our vision is a community-centered planning process that commits to a racial justice frame and restorative approach that intentionally directs economic, social and environmental benefits of highway removal to immigrant/refugee, low-wealth and BIPOC communities along the project corridor — and beyond.
Rebuilding a Vibrant Community
Harrison and Near North were once centered around the vibrant 6th Avenue North. Today, the community lacks walkable access to grocery stores and local businesses, communal spaces, quality transit, and other core amenities. Instead of a highway, we could have…
Since the initial announcement of the Blue Line Extension, nearly 500 units have been built or are currently in development in Harrison; however, only 50 are affordable to the average Harrison household.Any plans to reconstruct the highway must prioritize affordable housing options that are truly affordable for our community members. Space freed up by highway removal should be used to create more public housing rental units and restore the 770 units of public housing that was lost due to privatization and demolition in the early 2000s. In addition to more rental units, Harrison and Near North communities need accessible paths to homeownership
Keeping Public Land Public
Olson Memorial Highway currently occupies over 26 acres of land between Upton and Lyndale Avenue N. This doesn’t include the frontage roads and many parcels of land along the highway that are publicly owned. A key part of this vision is to return highway land to neighborhoods and preserve existing publicly owned land along the corridor. This land should be preserved for the development of locally-owned, community-serving businesses and the construction of publicly-owned housing.
Employment & Opportunities
The State of Minnesota currently sets regional hiring goals for underrepresented populations in public works projects, including women and people of color. Unfortunately, little effort has been made to enforce, recruit and develop workers from these communities and these targets are rarely met. This project corridor an opportunity to recommit to these goals and set a new standard for inclusive hiring practices.
Our proposal to reconstruct 6th Avenue North includes aggressive hiring targets. These include goals to have the project’s workforce be composed of 30% women and 48% people of color, with one third of the total workforce recruited from the surrounding neighborhoods of North Minneapolis. These goals are important tools to prioritize equity and use this project as a catalyst to welcome a more diverse workforce into the trades. In addition, we propose accountability measures to ensure more than half of new residences and retail businesses created due to redevelopment along the corridor should be owned by long-time residents of North Minneapolis. This will assist in restoring the local economic prosperity that once existed on 6th Avenue North.
The History of Harm and Broken Promises:
The Destruction of 6th Ave North
Where Olson Memorial Highway lies today was once a vibrant, predominately Black-owned business corridor along 6th Ave North. The community had access to grocery stores, bakeries, entertainment, shopping, and more. It’s numerous bars and music venues formed the heart of the Twin Cities jazz community. The area was also the cornerstone of the Jewish community in Minneapolis.
Construction of the highway was approved in 1933. By the end of the 1930s, hundreds of businesses and homes along the route were completely destroyed and replaced with a wide highway cutting through the neighborhoods. Transportation policies at the time were rooted in racism, making it common for highways to be built through Black and Brown communities. In total, 1 in 20 Minneapolis residents lost their home to freeway construction. This devastation was not experienced equally. Urban highways like Highway 55 were intentionally routed through predominantly Black communities. In 1960, 80 percent of the Twin Cities’ Black population lived in the areas where I-35W, I-94, and Highway 55 were placed.
Broken Promises: The Light Rail That Never Came
The METRO Blue Line Extension was originally planned to run through Olson Memorial Highway in the Harrison neighborhood. This project was presented to the community as a reparative infrastructure investment to address the harmful impacts and inequities that continue to persist in our communities after the demolition of Sixth Avenue North and construction of Olson Memorial Highway. MnDOT, Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council promised to address some of the major pedestrian safety concerns that were well-documented by the community as part of the project.
The announcement of the light rail project spurred large-scale development and displacement. As speculators began buying up property along the proposed route, Harrison residents were forced out of their homes through either the physical demolition of their once-affordable units to make way for “market-rate” housing or through exorbitant rent increases that they were unable to afford. The construction of new “affordable housing” has not kept pace with the loss of affordable units and Harrison residents continue to feel the pressure of gentrification and potential displacement from their community.
Plans changed in 2020 when it was announced that, due to opposition from BNSF Railway, the light rail extension would no-longer be constructed along Olson Memorial Highway. The modest but much-needed pedestrian safety improvements and improved transit access would no longer come to Harrison and Near North. Unfortunately the damage of displacement and speculative development had already been done. Despite the fact that the Minneapolis segment of the route has changed, our communities demand pedestrian safety improvements that are crucial for residents to be able to safely move within their own neighborhoods and restore the corridor to its original use, a vibrant street and cultural corridor with walkable access to amenities and economic opportunities.
A Continued Risk to Public Health
The Minneapolis neighborhoods along Olson Memorial Highway are exposed to some of the region’s highest levels of air pollution. According to data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), total air pollution in these communities is among the highest 20% statewide, with fine particulate pollution (PM 2.5) in the highest 10%. Traffic emissions are by far the largest pollution source, accounting for 55% of total air pollution along the highway. Consequently, the MPCA has identified the neighborhoods bordering Olson Memorial Highway as an area of concern for environmental justice.
Air pollution from traffic has a serious impact on human health. The EPA states that “pollution exposures related to roadway traffic include higher rates of asthma onset and aggravation, cardiovascular disease, impaired lung development in children, pre-term and low-birthweight infants, childhood leukemia, and premature death.” These impacts are a significant contributor to severe health disparities. The 55411 zip code, which includes the entirety of Olson Memorial Highway in Minneapolis, has the highest rate of asthma hospitalization in the seven county metropolitan area. The life expectancies of Near North residents are among the shortest in the region.
Historical photos from 6th Avenue South and the Olson Memorial Highway are sourced from the Hennepin County Library.